Desert Island Tools

by Derek Burch

There are a couple of tools without which I don't think that I could garden. When that idle thought drifted into my mind recently, it was joined by memories of a radio program called 'Desert Island Discs' on which celebrities were invited to discuss ten or a dozen pieces of music which they would choose to have with them if cast ashore with only a record player on some exotic isle. I don't want to write about that many garden tools, or discuss what would or would not open coconuts and fight off land crabs, but I do have some things to share about a few of my favourites.

The absolute must-have? My long-handled digging shovel. I am a convert to the long handle, after growing up in England using the short version and thinking of the long handle as being very continental and with a hint of decadence. Now, after a couple of summers working back in England (and loving every minute), I wonder why the digging tools there are apparently all made for very short people, and why everyone is willing to cultivate bent over the shovel when they could be saving their backs and looking around the garden as they dig..

But, without tracing my cultural evolution, let me say that I would be completely lost in the garden without my shovel. I am very fussy about parts of the specification. It must be one that is sold for the purpose of digging trees, round point, of course, and with the angle between the blade and the extension downwards of the handle very slight. I prefer a solid shank - the blade solid at the top where the handle fits into its socket, and I have never graduated from wood handles to fibreglass or to metal, although each has its advantages.

The fact is that I am describing a very old friend. It is an Ames pony, sharpened so many times that the round point is now a rounded depression at the tip. The steel is great and holds an edge well, and in my sandy soil I rarely strike anything hard or turn the edge. A few strokes with a file, more like using a steel at the table to get the carving knife ready to use, and we are away, More than twenty years of history with this one.

I dig with it, cutting roots up to a good size without needing to go hunting an axe, plant most things, do an edge to our rough lawn at a good speed and get weeding going fast by pushing the blade through the soil just under the surface as easily as I could with a Dutch hoe. I can cut and lift turf, break up lumps of soil and stir the surface down to seedbed smoothness, and even slash at vines and other tropical horrors, although I must admit that that is more a matter of bloodlust than efficiency.

Next, of course, a pitchfork, since my gardening style fits that classical description "my garden is my compost heap". Very little that will rot ever leaves the garden, and much more than than that comes in because I roam the streets picking up bags of leaves and grass cuttings, and will take chips from people cutting trees any time I can. Prunings go behind the bushes, with more easily decomposed material capping the piles, and leaves, grass and mature compost from these impromptu heaps all need the attention of the pitchfork to even them out. I never worry about depth of compost on roots (for all that I tell other people to limit the depth to which tree roots are covered), but don't often go more than about 30 inches. I have so many hungry little mouths in my soil that suck all this stuff in that it never seems to stay long enough to cut the roots off from the air. Needless to say, this is a long-handled tool, and while a garden fork would do most of the lifting and pitching, I am a wholehearted convert to standing upright while I work.

Pruning shears, secateurs, clippers, call them what you will, are my third choice, and in fact my third arm. I cannot be lured away from tools by Felco, no matter what technological advances other companies may promise. I use a No. 2. which is the straightforward version that made the companies name for gardeners. There is another (No. 8) with one handle that swivels to reduce fatigue and repetitive motion problems, and I may switch if my main one ever wears out (nearly 18 years of use now and the red handles are a little tattered, so it may well outlive me).

One more: my knife that travels with me everywhere that doesn't involve breaching security. Straight blade, lovely piece of steel folding into a wood handle, that makes a clean cut with no tearing. The tip is a sharp point that cuts as deep as I need it to for grafting and budding, and I can trim where a branch has come off a tree to give a clean-edged wound that heals well.

I use a lot of other things, of course: a digging bar if I am down in the Miami rock; mattock to continue the rock breaking; square shovel where there are piles of stuff to move from a flat surface; pruning saw; hardback and grass rakes, a comfortable trowel - cometh the hour, cometh the tool ! - but the basic four are the ones that I would ask for on my desert island, and I would take those over any gramophone disc offered.

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